Politico: Niche Web Site Isn't Yet A Notch Above

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

For all the pregame hype about voice and attitude and peeling back the curtain of traditional journalism, the Politico debuted last week by relying on an old-fashioned concept: reporting.

The political-junkie Web site, led by two former Washington Post reporters, wasn't as jam-packed as I expected, or as colorful, and is rarely updated during the day. In fact, most of what is on Politico.com -- and the print version, distributed free mainly on the Hill -- could easily have run in an Old Media relic like this newspaper. It strikes me as solid and substantive, but not knocking anyone's socks off.

"I've always envisioned us as a reporting-driven site, not a radical departure in creating a new form of journalism," says John Harris, the former Post editor and reporter who is editor in chief of the new venture. "I don't really want opinionizing, except from our outside editorial contributors."

Since Harris and Jim VandeHei, the Politico's executive editor, left high-profile Post jobs in November to launch the site, there was plenty of bleating in the press about the imminent death of print and the ascendancy of the Web. Well, there's no question that online sites are hot, which is why newspapers are pouring resources into their digital operations (including an expanded politics section on washingtonpost.com that just happened to start up last week).

And newspapers clearly are in trouble, as the demise of Knight Ridder and the Tribune Co.'s difficulties in selling itself make clear. But a metropolitan daily tries to do it all, from local news to entertainment to sports, while a niche site such as the Politico can zero in on the presidential campaign, Congress and lobbying. Directly comparing them is kind of silly. As Harris notes, "There will be a lot of stories that we may not have anything distinctive to say about, so we won't say anything at all."

As a specialized site, the Politico -- launched by Allbritton Communications, which also owns WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8 -- benefits from smart hires. The roster includes former U.S. News & World Report columnist Roger Simon, Time correspondent Mike Allen and Ben Smith of the New York Daily News.

Simon obtained an interview with John McCain -- who made news by saying that President Bush had been "badly served" by Vice President Cheney -- and then, in a column, opined: "When it comes to Iraq, you cannot accuse John McCain of political opportunism. In fact, his support for George Bush's downward spiral of a war seems more like political suicide."

Allen and Harris wrote of Hillary Clinton that her challenge was "convincing millions of people that the most famous woman on the planet -- someone who has been astride the national stage for 15 years -- is someone quite different than they think she is." If that sounds like a Post news analysis, maybe it's because they used to be the White House team here.

On Wednesday -- a day before The Post tackled the subject -- Smith wrote of Barack Obama: "Will he pitch himself to African-American voters as the black candidate, or hew to the post-racial line that's helped make him sensationally popular with white Democrats?"

Some items are way inside baseball, and a few stories -- such as "Health Problems Pose Governing Challenge," because the average age of senators has risen from 60 to 62 -- seem a bit of a stretch.

Among the juicier fare in lighter columns such as The Crypt: Rahm Emanuel seen rubbing his forehead against the forehead of his House Democratic colleague, Rosa DeLauro, "in what can only be described as an intimate embrace." Pretty hot, for Washington gossip.

The 25,000-run print edition, which will compete with Roll Call and the Hill, is being published three times a week, and once a week when Congress is not in session. Former House members Tom DeLay and Martin Frost have signed on as columnists. Politico staffers, meanwhile, have been appearing on "Face the Nation," "Early Show" and other CBS television and radio programs under a partnership with the network.

The Web site, which drew about 488,000 visitors in its first four days, is competing for advertising in a different arena: with Slate, Salon, National Review Online, Huffington Post, Instapundit and countless political blogs. Harris, for his part, is relieved that he got the thing up and running in the space of one month.

"I just hope people will judge us over time," he says. "We had never expected to create a revolutionary new brand of journalism on Day One."

Footnote: The Los Angeles Times is the latest newspaper to announce that it is combining the traditional and online newsrooms to beef up its Web site, which an internal committee found is hampered by "creaky" technology and slow news updates. "As a news organization, we are not Web-savvy," the group's report says. "If anything, we are Web-stupid."

Friendly Fire

Ed Schultz, one of the most popular liberal radio hosts, is fed up with Hillary Clinton.

His show is important, Schultz wrote on his Web site, but "convincing Hillary Clinton and her arrogant handlers of that is a different battle in itself. . . . Hillary's people treat us like dirt."

Schultz, whose show is carried in 95 markets, including Washington, says in an interview that Clinton "is the hardest person to get in the Senate. Her people disregard us, they lie to us, they come up with excuses that just don't fit. . . . The irony is that Hillary is the person beat up most on talk radio and she is avoiding it, and avoiding a friendly audience."

Clinton has been rather busy of late, hitting all the network evening newscasts and morning shows, along with CNN, MSNBC and a round of appearances after President Bush's State of the Union address.

Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines says his boss has "happily appeared" on Schultz's show at least half a dozen times, including her first national radio interview after being reelected. "She always enjoys speaking with Ed about the important issues of the day, admires his passion and looks forward to continuing their dialogue about our country's direction well into the future." Reines says diplomatically.

Don't Blame Us

The Washington Times did not touch the story about Hillary Clinton's camp supposedly spreading a rumor that Sen. Barack Obama, her presidential campaign rival, once attended a madrassa, a school that teaches a fundamentalist form of Islam.

The paper blew off the report even though it was carried this month by Insight, the Internet magazine owned by the same parent company.

Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden, calling it a "lurid account," declared in his column that Insight "is absolutely, positively and entirely separate from the newspaper." Pruden quoted from my reports in which Obama and Clinton spokesmen called the article trash, adding: "Neither this newspaper nor most others took up the story, which cited no named sources."

Insight Editor Jeffrey Kuhner concedes that "the madrassa angle on Barack Obama had not been thoroughly checked out when we posted our story," but says "our story was about the Clinton camp's opposition research on Barack Obama, which had been thoroughly checked out. . . . The story gave our readers insider knowledge about what is truly going on in the Hillary camp. . . . Contrary to misrepresentations by The Washington Post and CNN, Insight's Obama story never -- not once -- claimed that Obama attended a madrassa as a young boy."

The Insight article did say that an investigation by Obama's opponents "has discovered that Mr. Obama was raised as a Muslim by his stepfather in Indonesia." Both the Obama and Clinton camps have dismissed the allegations, and the deputy headmaster of the Indonesian school in question told CNN that it is a public school.

The World Is Shrinking

The Boston Globe announced last week that it is closing its remaining foreign bureaus in Israel, Germany and Colombia to avoid further layoffs. The New York Times-owned paper joins the Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Newsday and Dallas Morning News in jettisoning its last correspondents abroad, leaving international coverage to a diminishing group of big newspapers.

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